This post is part of a series that aims to provide a background on the history of the Silk Road.
Nowadays, when looking up the term “Silk Road” on an online search engine, the main results one is likely to find will be related to an obscure online marketplace. The so-called “Silk Road market” was in fact an e-commerce site launched in early 2011, which became renowned for its stocks of a plethora of illegal drugs. Illegal goods were safely traded thanks to a powerful set of sophisticated mechanisms that allowed buyers and sellers to protect their identities. However, following a major investigation led by the FBI, the epicentre of the illegal cyber-word soon reached an endpoint in its tumultuous career. Ross Ulbricht, the website’s founder, was in fact jailed in 2015 and sentenced to a life in prison. The worthiness of his online nickname “Dread Pirate Roberts” had reached an endpoint.
In the past few decades, varieties of homonymous brands have mushroomed by utilizing the exotic appeal of the term “silk road” as a marketing tool. Restaurant chains, property marketing companies and designer clothing shops are only some of the disparate members of a wide community of brands that a curious eye is likely to find when roaming through the streets of a Western city.
From Horses to Beryllium
Although arguably the Silk Road did not collapse in the 15th and 16th century, its foundations have certainly been reshaped by time. Commercially, for instance, while expensive goods such as silk, gems and animals, used to compose the major share of traded goods in the past, their relevance in terms of volumes of trade should be considered as secondary at most nowadays. Commodities have in fact substituted luxury goods on the routes of trade thanks to the dramatic collapse of transport costs that has characterized the past two centuries.
Central Asia offers a straightforward case study of the commercial transformations faced by this route. Before the advent of the industrial revolution and mechanization, Central Asian populations had often subsisted on the sale of their prized horses. The nomad populations of the steppe had an important comparative advantage in the realm of horsepower as the horses grown in this region were reputed to be far better than their Chinese relatives were. Central Asian horses were in fact exchanged for silk and other precious goods from China. Nonetheless, the rise of mechanisation rapidly downgraded the relevance of horsepower, and hence dramatically weakened the stance of the nomadic populations of Central Asia relative to the neighbouring agrarian populations of China and Russia. Over time, China and Russia expanded their dominions by conquering and assimilating these nomadic tribes.
Today, Central Asian countries are quietly regaining their geopolitical relevance thanks to their valuable natural resources. Amongst these, Turkmenistan has distinguished itself for having the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have become important centres for gold mining, while Kazakhstan has become renowned for offering a wide-range of rare earths, amongst other resources. Where political instability has not plagued extraction, these countries have faced rapid transformations. As explained by Peter Frankopan, an Oxford professor, in Central Asia “cities are booming, with new airports, tourism resorts, luxury hotels and landmark buildings springing up in countries that find themselves with enormous sums at their disposal to indulge their fantasies”. Whether these excesses will lead to a sustained boom will largely depend on these countries’ ability to build inclusive institutions, and hence avoid the tentacles of a resource curse that has hampered the realization of the ambitions of many resource-rich countries in the past.
Is It Still a "Silk Road"?
In 2013, the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the birth of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” in Astana, Kazakhstan. This investment plan is a centrepiece of Xi’s foreign policy and it is aimed at strengthening the ties between China, Central Asia and Europe. Following Xi’s lead, Chinese politicians have repeatedly referred to this term as a mean to resuscitate memories of an era where China gloriously predominated over its neighbouring peers in a variety of domains. However, a cynical mind may question the modern relevance of this term, which may have escaped its death by becoming a marketing tool rather than by maintaining its ancient role as a route for goods and ideas.